Burned Out

Equipment shortages and budget gaps leave states vulnerable to wildfires.

Equipment shortages and budget gaps leave states vulnerable to wildfires.

Firefighters battled blazes in Los Angeles and New Jersey in May, against a backdrop of serious shortages of equipment among National Guard units across the country, an ongoing lack of firefighting aircraft, concern about covering the cost of battling blazes and predictions of a long hot summer.

As of May 29, 35,593 fires had scorched nearly 1.3 million acres across the United States. Last year, 96,385 fires burned 9.9 million acres. Efforts to suppress fires on federal land cost the Forest Service nearly $2 billion in 2006; its firefighting budget is based on the 10-year average of firefighting costs, and increasingly, that number is proving too small. For fiscal 2008, the Bush administration requested $911 million for Forest Service firefighting. Three years ago, Congress set aside $1 billion for federal agencies to tap after their fire budgets were spent-the fund was emptied last year.

Americans' desire to live near nature is sparking the increases in the cost of suppressing fire. More than 8 million houses have been built on the edge of wilderness since 1999, forcing firefighters to protect new structures.

Meanwhile, much of the nation's aerial firefighting fleet remains grounded. After three plane crashes in 2002, all the World War II-era large tanker planes were pulled from the skies for safety checks. Only 16 of 40 are back flying. As a result, Alaska has adopted a policy of letting wilderness homes burn to preserve resources to fight fires in cities and towns. California and Minnesota have built their own fleets, and other states have begun relying on them for help.

Partly, that's because states no longer are certain their National Guard units can be counted on. Though guard spokespeople in many states assure that they are ready, the Guard's national chief, Lt. Gen. H. Stephen Blum, has been stoking the fears of governors and Congress members about equipment shortages. Today, the guard is equipped at only 50 percent of its needs, Blum told legislators in May. He was pushing the Defense Department's request for $22 billion in equipment spending over the coming five years.

Guard units increasingly are leaving their equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan to outfit their replacements. That leaves stateside units short for training and for disaster recovery. Many states rely on the Guard for Humvees and other vehicles to distribute disaster aid and for planes and helicopters to help fight fires and perform rescues. "Those 40-year-old trucks are here in the U.S. because they are not good enough to go to the war. But someone thinks they are good enough to be used to save American lives," Blum said.

The outlook for wildland fires through August is higher than normal this year for most of the country. Drought is expanding in the West and Southeast. Lower snowfall, warmer than predicted weather and early snow melt has dried out timber and brought an early onset of the fire season in the West. Abundant new grass also is expected to cure early, bringing the threat of more active and prolonged grassland fires in the West.